As PAG Leisurewear celebrates its 50th anniversary, Mark Ludmon finds out what sets this London-based distributor apart from its competitors

One of Michael Hanreck’s earliest memories is about T-shirts. “I can remember as a four-year-old climbing over boxes of T-shirts in the warehouse,” he recalls. After helping out while still at school and then joining full-time at 22, he is now managing partner of PAG Leisurewear, a supplier of wholesale clothing to retail and the trade, including printers and embroiderers. Michael has been with the firm for 29 years, but the company dates back to 1969 when it was founded by his parents, Richard and Vivienne. It was a very different set-up back then: trading as Print-A-Gift, the company ran concessions in leading department stores selling personalised gift products aimed at tourists, from playing cards to pencils, with gold-foil printing. Transfer printed T-shirts emblazoned with motifs such as ‘I love London‘ were soon added to the product range. However, Richard struggled to find good-quality garments in Britain in the 1970s so looked further afield, to North America.

“My father has always valued quality and was looking for a really good-quality T-shirt as they just didn’t do 100% cotton T-shirts in the UK,” Michael explains. Richard came across a clothing company called Hanes – at that time an established American brand that was looking to expand into Europe – and started importing its garments into the UK. With Print-A-Gift now sole UK distributor for Hanes, the business started to change, eventually dropping its retail concessions. “We don’t print or sell gifts anymore so we just shortened it to PAG,” Michael says. “Hanes was very successful for us. T-shirts were very much seen as a supplementary side of the business so this was really a big change.” Sales grew but soon Hanes wanted more, looking to PAG Leisurewear to support its European expansion. “They were very keen for us to remain as distributor so we needed to have reps and get bigger, but we didn’t think that was for us. We gave back our sole distributor rights and took on other brands.”

PAG founder Richard Hanreck [L] with England cricketer Robin Smith at a London trade show in 1989

Fine Jersey T-shirts

One of the first was another American brand, Anvil, which has supplied T-shirts to the US screen printing market since 1976 and now offers a wide range of activewear including sweatshirts and hoodies as well as V-necks. Seven years ago, Anvil was acquired by Gildan – a move that suited PAG well, as it was one of the original four distributors for Gildan in the UK – a relationship that is still going strong. “Gildan is the bread and butter of our business out of all the brands we do,” Michael says. PAG’s portfolio has grown thanks to Gildan’s continuing expansion: the Comfort Colors vintage garment dye collection, with a nature-inspired colour palette, was bought by the Canadian group in 2015, followed by the American Apparel brand in 2017. Thanks to economies of scale and new systems after this most recent acquisition, Gildan has been able to reduce the price of American Apparel garments to a level that opens up the brand to more customers in the UK, Michael explains. “I’m really excited about American Apparel’s Fine Jersey T-shirts. Since December, the price dropped from £3.60 to £1.75 on white, but the quality is identical. It is a massive drop and makes American Apparel a legitimate option for somebody doing a promotion or an event where the American Apparel brand will speak to their audience. It’s the standout product for us this year. We hope it will allow American Apparel to gain real traction in the promotional market.”

PAG was one of the four original UK distributors for Gildan

Independent Trading Company garments are popular with skaters and surfers in the US

For the past 15 years, PAG’s portfolio has also included two brands from German manufacturer Daiber: sports and outdoor clothing range James & Nicholson, and cap and hat specialist Myrtle Beach. Through James & Nicholson, PAG can meet demand for organic clothing, Michael adds. “Typically organic garments are very boring and tend to be just lighter-weight T-shirts whereas James & Nicholson have T-shirts, polo shirts and hoods, with interesting colours and interesting product detail. That side of the business waxes and wanes but we are keen to see it grow.” Completing the collection of brands is Independent Trading, which teamed up with PAG two years ago. Dating back over 30 years, the Los Angeles-based company has carved out a niche with skate and surf retailers in the US with its high-quality sweatshirts, fleeces, jackets and T-shirts and is now targeting the printwear market in the UK. “We liked the quality of the product,” Michael explains, “but they were also a good fit for us in that they were very open in letting us lead as well as supporting us. We have had great success in growing by doing things our own way.” Another attraction was Independent Trading’s stockholding, with around eight million pieces available from its two distribution centres in California and Pennsylvania. “Their stock has been fantastic. It’s well-known in the industry that there have been some massive stock shortages, but there aren’t any orders that we haven’t been able to complete with Independent Trading.”

Considered approach

With seven brands, PAG is a long way from having the largest collection of names in the UK printwear market. But that is intentional, Michael points out. “A lot of other distributors became successful as multi-brand. They have had to as they were in a lot of competition. The more stuff they have, the more stuff they can sell. We did not want to do that. We didn’t want to be selling 200 different types of T-shirt. There are a lot of people with the same brands as us plus an awful lot more. We are quite a different business. We try not to accumulate brands. Each brand is a considered thing and we make sure there’s a clear reason for each of them.” PAG’s line-up also reflects the ubiquity of Gildan in wholesale in the UK. “Gildan product is lovely, but it has got commoditised as there are a lot of people offering it so it becomes a fight over price,” 

Michael regards American Apparel’s Fine Jersey T-shirt as a “stand-out product”

Michael explains. “There are a lot of bigger distributors out there with sales people trying to get that business. For us, it has always been important to have brands that we are growing and to offer something a bit different to our customers. Otherwise you just end up talking to people about price. We want something with a story that we can talk to people about.” One area where PAG stands out is its ability to lay its hands on stock when others are struggling. “When stock is exceedingly scarce, we do more to find it and can airlift from the States,” Michael adds.

Technological investments

For PAG, investing in technology has helped it to “punch above its weight”. Under Michael, it has introduced stock visibility systems for accurate, real-time monitoring of its supply chain and it was one of the first to integrate EDI (electronic data interchange) with Gildan to enable the exchange of documents. The company was also an early adopter of cloud-based systems, which it has used since 2008. “We try to leverage technology and not be just location based,” he explains. “We have a web developer in Uruguay and people keying in data in Canada and the Philippines.” The result is a lean company that runs operations with a core workforce of just 12 people from its base by Hanger Lane in west London. PAG has been based in this area since the start, moving to its current warehouse and office in 2005. It offers same-day van deliveries within London where six of the leading screen-printers are based. “They get demanding jobs where being able to supply stuff immediately is vital,” Michael says. “We couldn’t function as the business that we are unless we were located where we are.” One highlight in the company’s 50 years was becoming clothing supplier to the 2012 London Olympics, providing 70,000 T-shirts for volunteers. “We then became a bit of a go-to company as the opening and closing ceremonies developed and they needed garments,” Michael recalls. Rejecting price wars, PAG prioritises “deep working relationships” with customers.

Michael comments: “We work very closely with people who want a different relationship rather than somebody with a big warehouse. We provide a more personalised level of service. We put in effort for our customers who are loyal to us and want to grow with us. A big part of our business is trying to catch people early on in their cycle and proving we can do something a bit different. It’s nice to see people grow. It’s more impressive when you help somebody build a business rather than just supplying people who already have a strong business.” This model is not one they intend to sacrifice in exchange for massive expansion, he adds. “There are businesses doing things in low cost locations with low cost staff, but it’s not what I want our business to be. I have no desire to get to the point where I don’t know the names of all my members of staff. It’s just completely different. My business is very much how I want my life to be.” 

The staff have genuine fun together, says Michael

Michael’s parents are still involved in PAG as partners, and they were joined by Michael’s wife, Emma, who was previously in marketing at shipping giant Maersk, in 2010. He hopes that the company’s staff members, who are paid according to the London Living Wage, also feel part of the family. “Even to this day, we are all flexible,” Michael says. “If people are under pressure, someone is always able to help them. The reason we can retain staas well as we do and have the quality of staff is that we enjoy the variation. The way we are set up is not the most scalable, but very much based around enjoying working with the people next to you. We have genuine fun together. If I couldn’t go into the warehouse and help out, I’d stop working.”

A good place

The family currently has no major party plans to mark the company’s half- century although it did set up a skate ramp at the Printwear & Promotion Live! exhibition in January as part of its celebrations. Michael has also set himself the target of getting out to meet as many of their customers as possible before the end of the year. They remain excited about future prospects in spite of any uncertainties in the UK economy. “We are exceedingly pleased with our existing brands and what we are offering,” Michael says. “We have the right products, and the manufacturers and brands are doing the right things to support us. We are in a good place.”